It eventually becomes clear that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a series of connected dreams, but up until that point director Luis Buñuel has created a world of such vaguely familiar absurdities that you wonder if a sort of dystopia has set in around us without anyone noticing. (Has it?)
The recurring motif in the film is that of a dinner party, which seems to be the focal point in the lives of three affluent couples in France. They frequently show up on the wrong day or have to reschedule or are interrupted in various ways (including, at one point, by an army colonel and his troops, who then invites them to a dinner party of his own). Buñuel uses the meal conceit as a connective springboard for odd vignettes referencing everything from Freud to Mao, from terrorist plots to Nazis hiding in Latin America. And so there is a lot of ideological ping pong going on, narratively and visually (another recurring gag involves Napoleon’s hat). If the allusions — especially as they might pertain to the European political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s — aren’t immediately apparent, it can be a bit of a chore trying to stich them together or keep up. Many of the jokes you appreciate more than you laugh at.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was not as hypnotic as I expected, then; the experience was more like watching a dryly funny sketch comedy show where I was missing much of the context. There is one clear target for Buñuel, however, that crosses all ideological lines: hypocrisy. Be it the priest who shoots a dying man in revenge immediately after granting him absolution or the high-society cocaine smuggler who snootily declares, “I loathe drug addicts,” nothing is held in more disdain in Buñuel’s surreal dream world than a hypocritical gesture. Except maybe missing a dinner appointment.